Notes from the film set

At 8:30 in the morning on Saturday, October 27th, we wrapped principal photography on Dreaming Grand Avenue. It was the last of three back-to-back all-nighters filming around Chicago: at the Adler Planetarium, a 2 AM motorcycle ride down Lakeshore Drive, and a cemetery, finally culminating in a shoot on the Chicago River on a Shoreline Sightseeing boat. (If you get the chance to travel down the Chicago River at 3 in the morning, take it! The shot below was taken from my iPhone; you should see it in 4K on an Alexa with prime lenses.)

As I write this, it’s been just two weeks since wrapping and returning on Monday to my day job at c|change. Looking back at my first feature, CASS, I’m struck by the need to reorient myself. In particular, I’m surprised (again) by three significant differences and one critical similarity between running a strategic design agency and making a movie.

Difference 1: Novelty and Security

Film crews are a bit like a traveling circus. Each player has his or her special talent; production designers, gaffers and cinematographers are the jugglers, trapeze artists and lion tamers on the set.

The crew collaborates for however many weeks the budget allows for pre-production and principal photography. (In the case of Stanley Kubrick, that process could take years.) And in one week they might visit a half-dozen locations.

After the martini shot, after last call at the after party of the cast and crew party, most of the crew moves on to the next job, as editors, sound designers and VFX come in to work their own magic.

In any local film community like Chicago’s, crew members will inevitably run into each other on different sets. For the duration of any shoot, you’ll overhear conversations about shows on the other side of town and rumors of upcoming productions. Word-of-mouth is critical for the next gig because this is an itinerant livelihood.

Because the nature of this work is transient, some film professionals mix up their indie and short film projects with higher-paying corporate commercials and shoots. While some have their healthcare covered by their unions, younger, non-union talent often risk going without.

“You know what the secret of life is?”

“Your finger?”

“One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean s**t.”

City Slickers

Like the circus, it can be tempting to run away from one’s office job for the allure of a life a little more on the edge. Conversely, a steady paycheck, health insurance and a 401(k) look awfully nice in the dead of winter with holiday bills to pay and most productions shut down.

But human nature can be a great leveler. Tyrants and prima donnas exist in both worlds. For every short-tempered director on-set, there is a boss demanding 60 to 70 hours a week on a regular basis. (More on workload in a moment.) For every prima donna crew member who throws a tantrum over the bagel selection with craft services, there is a coworker with a phone voice several decibels above a leaf blower.

(I should note that there are also different types of “novelty” and “security” that apply to both. Certainly, an office job demands its own type of novelty, to ensure the work doesn’t become rote and people become bored. And as tragic news reports have shown, security, as it refers to safety, is absolutely critical on a film set. The distinctions I’m talking about will become clearer with the second difference…)

Difference 2: Focus and Time Management

On set, there is a kind of adrenaline rush that happens in the countdown from “Quiet, please!” to “Action!” Everyone from those crowded around the monitors in video village to the cinematographer behind the lens to the sound engineer holding the boom mic is focused on the performance. Thirty (or more) people focus on every blocked move of the actors, every syllable uttered, every reflection of a camera in a window, every flare in an actor’s glasses from an HMI light. This heightened focus extends for the duration of the take. And the next one. And the next one, until that particular shot is done to satisfaction. (Returning to Kubrick, one actor reports one eight-minute take on The Shining was done 50 to 60 times. Clint Eastwood with his extensive background in acting usually goes for the first or second take.)

At c|change, on any given day, we have 30 people involved in 50 or more jobs at various stages of completion: initial estimates, a strategy session kick-off for a campaign across media, a storyboard being designed, a producer off on a video shoot, a copywriter finishing a white paper, or a programmer finalizing and uploading a new client website. For that reason, time management then becomes an essential part of the job.

This is not to say that there is no time management on a film set! On the contrary, the whole pre-production process involved the careful scheduling of the four-, five-, or six-week shoot. (The more time, the bigger the budget.)

But at strategic design agencies like c|change, time management is a daily, ongoing process that requires personal commitment and community support. The top performers are the ones who manage their time well. For example, emails, texts, and even in-house channels like Slack may promise to streamline communication, but for some, can become distractions or black holes where precious time is simply lost.

Just as film crew members may thrive on moving from job to job, as someone who began his career as a copywriter, I enjoy moving from one client to another: learning some new development in AI or approach to change management, to brainstorming an outdoor campaign for Shoreline Sightseeing or reviewing a video edit done for the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. While any one of those topics might (and sometimes must) take one down a rabbit hole of research, it’s finding a way back to the here and now that can prove challenging.

Difference 3: Long Hours, Hard Work

“They gave (me and Mickey Rooney) pills to keep us on our feet long after we were exhausted. Then they’d take us to the studio hospital and knock us out with sleeping pills… Then after four hours, they’d wake us up and give us pep pills again so we could work 72 hours in a row.”

–Judy Garland

The commitment, novelty and focus for those engaged in moviemaking is rocket fuel that keeps professionals working in close quarters 14 to 16 hours a day, five (sometimes six) days a week. It’s an adrenaline rush – and temptation to excess.

Following the excesses of large Hollywood studios in the 20s and 30s, unions like SAG-AFTRA and the DGA established rules of conduct. But ask any PA driving an equipment truck after others have clocked in their 16 hour days, abuses still happen.

While there are some design and marketing agencies that push for late nights and weekend work (many years ago, Chiat/Day reportedly had the unofficial motto: If you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t bother coming in on Sunday), more often than not, these creative sweatshops suffer from high turnover (and high drama).

One of the Core Values at c|change is Compassionate Collaboration. That includes both a respect for your team members’ time (e.g., delays in front-end wireframing and design can lead to downstream fire drills for programmers working to hard deadlines) and healthy work/life balance. Compassionate Collaboration demands that creative folks practice empathy to ensure our decisions don’t negatively impact someone else.

Not every task can be completed by 5:30, but we do our best to ensure professionals aren’t working late nights on a regular basis. In the past decade, plenty of research has been done on productivity and the optimal number of hours worked in a week. It’s been clearly demonstrated that simply working more hours doesn’t make us more productive. In fact, pushing people to extremes can simply lead to burn out.

(On the flipside, there are also compelling studies on the psychological and physical stress business owners can be under if they’re not practicing Compassionate Collaboration themselves.)

“What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

–Cool Hand Luke

 

The Common Element for Success

Even through the haze of reorienting myself to the desk in my office, within hours it’s clear what is the common element for success in any enterprise: Communication. Looking through one end of the telescope, it’s easy to see the negative evidence – that is, the problems that occur when communication sucks: false assumptions, false attribution of blame, and passive-aggressive power plays when information is simply withheld.

But let’s focus on the positive benefits of communication. Years ago, I saw an exhibition on the film of Alfred Hitchcock. Along one long wall was the detailed storyboard for the classic crop-duster scene from North by Northwest. Every shot, every angle was covered. A film clip of the final scene was looped above the storyboard. The match was uncanny.

The advantage of a storyboard is that every member of the crew (and cast) can see what the director is seeing. With enough time and budget, it would be ideal (for me) to have a full-blown storyboard as an integral part of the production of each of my films. Lacking that, I still prepare a full shot list at the start of production each day. The shot list is shared not just with the Director of Photography, but also with the Sound Engineers and 1st and 2nd AD. It gives them all insight into how complicated (or not) the day might be and how many set-ups we’re anticipating.

One morning, a PA – who was to drive a truck to a location on the South Side of Chicago – called in sick. Details are murky as to what happened next (a call sheet from the day before? An address that was recorded as North, not South?) but an entire van of equipment was driven by the new driver, at rush hour, to the previous day’s location on the North Side. By the time the truck arrived, cast and crew were an hour and a half past call time.

There are (at least) three ways improved communication can help Compassionate Collaboration:

  1. 01
    Clarity of shared goals. The better I understand how you are seeing things, the fewer assumptions I will make and the less rework we’ll need to do.
  2. 02
    A greater sense of control and empowerment. The more information any member of your team has the more engagement he or she may feel in the work being done. A study conducted by a French business school professor found: “value creation does not occur in the managerial ranks but mostly through employees who are in daily contact with customers.”
  3. 03
    Increased accountability. The less your team members can say, “I had no idea that…” the more they can take responsibility for being the eyes and ears that will help maintain quality control of your work.

A final note may seem obvious but is critical for success. Whatever creative enterprise you’re involved in, Trust is paramount. If you really do trust every member of your organization, it is then possible to always first “assume the best.” Once that trust is lost, people’s motivations or commitment can suddenly come into question. Those assumptions act like acid in any creative endeavor you’re involved in. And once that individual or team knows they do not have your trust, you can count on a breakdown in communication.

As different as these endeavors may seem, at c|change, we call both “World Building”, Whether creating a planet in a distant galaxy for a movie or bringing a brand to life, this creative work depends upon ensuring that all elements are compelling and consistent, that they all cohere into a unified identity that is engaging and believable.

To do that, you need a creative team that is also speaking the same language. Only when the creators of these worlds are speaking the same language, communicating in a way that brand strategy consistently aligns with execution and experience, only then are we successful. And that’s going to take some clear communication.

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